By Robbie Mackey on April 30, 2010
Aaron Espinoza’s aspirations are simple:
“I want to write great songs—fuck it, no, I want to write classics,” he says with a red-faced honesty characteristic of Earlimart, the L.A.-based indie pop act he’s fronted for a decade. It’s perhaps the most inspiring moment in our talk, when the singer, songwriter and guiding force behind the band lets his guard down and admits to the purest pursuit in music. But considering the three-year roller coaster ride that’s kept he and his Silver Lake pals out of the spotlight, you’d think Espinoza would settle for less out of necessity. How can you care about classics when the future hangs in the balance?
It all began shortly after the release of 2004’s Treble & Tremble, an album inspired by and written in the wake of longtime Espinoza-pal Elliott Smith’s sudden death. After impressive out-of-the-gate success, Earlimart’s label Palm Pictures pulled the plug on the record (and most of its music division), leaving the band and its smartest, most accomplished set of songs in the lurch.
“Treble got a raw deal,” says Espinoza. “I think it’s a really good record. We were doing really well, selling a couple thousand a week, and ended up selling 30,000 records. But the thing is, we could have fucking sold 50 or 70.”
As if that wasn’t enough, when Espinoza hunkered down to write the follow-up, the pen was dry. Hours turned into days at his Eagle Rock, California, studio, The Ship. The writer’s block was crippling, sending him home to build a bedroom studio, which he soon christened The Shiplet. With no label and no songs, the band’s future looked bleak, at best. It was Espinoza’s personal life that got him through.
“I wasn’t unhappy. I’d fallen in love with a girl in New York. She moved to Los Angeles. We got engaged. Maybe I’m just not motivated to write when I’m really happy. Something [dark] has to spur something inside.” Apparently the Palm fiasco wasn’t enough. “I was just content with taking walks and hanging out and making dinner. I felt weird writing about making dinner.”
Enter Earlimart’s Ariana Murray, the only other original member in a band famous for its revolving door. More than ever, Murray threw herself into the writing process and eventually dragged Espinoza back to the Ship. The result is Mentor Tormentor, a record that works hard from start to finish to achieve “classic.” And with its broad, sweeping string arrangements, the album is much more grandiose than anything Earlimart has done before.
As the title might suggest, Mentor is an ode to the duplicitous role our loved ones play in our lives. Fittingly, Ariana came up with it.
“I think it was a combination of all these ups and downs in the last couple of years,” explains Espinoza. “We’ve had some loss, and some people leave us, and some pretty disappointing friendships.”
Sonically, the album mirrors those same ups and downs, oscillating from revved-up rock songs about the failings of friendship (“Everyone Knows Everyone”) to autumnal piano ballads about separation and acceptance (“Don’t Think About Me”). After shopping Mentor to a wide range of labels—“from the most major majors to the smallest indies”—the band decided to do it their own way, teaming with the folks at Shout! Factory to distribute the record on their own imprint, Majordomo.
“Now we get to quarterback everything,” says Espinoza. “We went through all that shit, but in the end we wound up getting everything we wanted.” F
This article is from FILTER Issue 26